Note: This piece is a response to a really nicely written blog post by Drew Simmons over at PaleMorningMedia.com and semi one-sided conversation that’s been happening on social media since the demise of TEN media including Powder, Bike, Surfer, Snowboarder. Dunno why I felt compelled to write it. Maybe cause of my connection to the demise of Skiing Magazine. And also…maybe cause the outdoor industry likes rallying cries, but doesn’t necessarily process everything that goes into the event that caused the rallying cry. Having worked in media, on the brand side making advertising decisions, and now helping small and mid-size brands grow in the digital space at Craft 52…this is actually a rallying cry I feel I have some understanding of. This is the lightly edited comment I just left on Drew’s blog. Take it or leave it.
Been seeing so much social chatter since the demise of TEN. But it all feels somewhat one-sided, with everyone trumpeting the need for outdoor brands to step up and support endemic media. Having had a front-row seat to the demise of one endemic title (Skiing), I think that two challenges need to be levied at this time. 1. Yes brands should step up and consider supporting endemic titles. 2. Endemic titles need to step up and get to understand the challenges facing modern brands, and create programs that help solve those problems.
With the explosion of interest in outdoor products and crazy sales, I would expect there was an explosion of operational nightmares with production, delivery, technology, and systems. Those cost money. And now company principals have to go into budget planning scratching their heads with a crazy outlier data set and no real indication when customer spending might swing back in the favor of microbrews and European vacations. Worse yet, I don’t think there’s any guarantee that this recession doesn’t finally reach the top 50% of the income bracket—those outdoor users—in the coming months. In short…forecasting is gonna be a bitch this year. You want to be positive for sure, but the assumption that budgets will be bigger in 2021 and companies will be flush with money to spend on endemic media is a bridge too far for me.
That’s why I think it’s gonna take two to tango. I’m certain there’s going to be a major land grab…or rather eyeball grab or click grab next year on the brand side. They’re going to have to beat inflated numbers with no guarantee of a large and continuing bump in organic interest all while taking on extra production risk. The scale of this ask for some brands will be staggering. It will be a scale that, no matter how valuable endemic media is to the industry, the endemic media probably can’t support “running it back” with the programs/models they’ve leaned on for years.
So if brands are going to require scale in 2021, how does endemic media compete when, as great as they’ve served the core audiences, they really have no financially sensible answer for brands when you start needing consistent scaleable opportunities? There are a few answers I’m leaning toward, but I’d imagine there are others.
Audience engagement (read: the precursor to actionability). Great examples here are Opensnow.com and a new media company I think everyone in interest-based media should be watching…thednvr.com. They take completely different tacts, but both titles have nearly daily engagement from huge portions of their audiences, at least seasonally. Can we say the same thing for the recently folded titles (including the one I was a part of)?
Digital advertising while scaleable is noisy as hell, so when an endemic title can get a large chunk of their audience to put down Facebook, put down twitter, and devote 100% of their attention to their content almost daily, they all the sudden have a platform built on focus that the generic digital ad mediums cannot match. Here’s the funny thing too. I’ve noticed I don’t get annoyed hearing somewhat repetitive advertising on these media-developed focus platforms. Rather, when the advertiser is relevant to my lifestyle, I actually end up thinking…”Huh, this company also sees value in this niche thing I’m interested in…maybe I’ll check them out.” At the very least it’s much less annoying than repeatedly getting the same Instagram ad served to you.
Work within the behemoth digital platforms to provide value to the outdoor brand they can’t get on their own. This is mostly for newer brands cause the algorithms suck now, across both search and social when you’re trying to get your start. Much of endemic media is perfectly positioned to help along newer brands—get them started on the following and search rankings they’re going to need to be successful. This would take a lot of trust between media and brand, some serious alignment between brand to audience, AND probably a long term commitment. But if a new brand truly aligns with an audience, and the media outlet vets everything, why can’t the media outlet become the brand’s biggest advocate? Act as an influencer on social, develop content and backlinks about the brand that help search rankings. Give them great ad placements in print. My experience in traditional media always held advertisers at arm’s length to protect some veiled “impartiality.” Screw that…go all in and own it. Get people completely plugged into the stuff that you (the media title) think is cool. Your advertisers will thank you, and your audience will thank you when they end up with something they love…plus more advertisers will be asking “How do I get that treatment?” So long as not all of them make the cut (i.e. stuff you don’t like cant buy-in for the sake of revenue), I don’t see the conflict.
Establish a scale and be cool with what you are. To me this is the Drake Mag model. The titles we’ve lost of the last few years were as much a casualty of their situation as anything else. The growth-demanded corporate model is tough when you inevitably can’t get the resources to develop the audience or the relevance to advertisers in the modern world. I saw this all day at Skiing. I felt we were making a great product for our reader…but advertisers weren’t interested. When we came up with ideas that the advertisers might be interested in, we either didn’t have the personnel, more often we didn’t have the time, or corporate didn’t have the sack to allow the program get off the ground (cause…profits). That cycle repeated itself over and over and over and over.
But right now, to your point in the blog post, there is massive amounts of interest in outdoor. And with that interest, I gotta believe big non-endemic brands are chomping at the bit to get in the mix. Many, I’m sure have slivered off budgets that eclipse many traditional outdoor brands as “outdoor play money” to invest in core titles and publications. There’s likely a great opportunity for core titles to get in front of these non-endemic brands, get them plugged into their traditional programs at better rates. Bank a little bit of cash. And start experimenting with better programs for budget-strapped outdoor companies that could grow relevance in the modern digital market. I still think there are countless plays for endemic media to try out (including Option #1 & #2 above).
Option 3 requires some tact to make sure you don’t alienate your audience for sure, and of the 3 it’s the least “audience-focused” of the strategies (if poorly executed) which I don’t love. But it’s probably a touch easier and can buy you some time to figure it out a little more. Ultimately, I feel the scale (from the media title perspective) is somewhat limited here. But I just don’t think Skiing, Powder, Surfer, Bike, etc are necessarily in this position under different ownership that’s comfortable with their size. Maybe there’s an opportunity to resurrect some, but pretty much every one of those verticals has at least a somewhat competitive independent title still in existence. Hopefully, those indies get stronger. They’re awesome, and they have the flexibility and freedom I would have killed for at Skiing.
Thanks for putting up with this to this point. I needed a space to vent…and generally hate social media so this article felt as good a place as ever. As I look back on watching the demise of Skiing, I can honestly say, organizationally, we didn’t do anything that made it worth saving aside from great content (which is in no short supply these days). No slight on the people that cranked out great issues and web content or tried hard to sell ad space that wasn’t selling. But we just didn’t make our product relevant to the business model that it used in the market that we served. I’m not as familiar with these latest casualties, but I’m not confident they did either (though I’m welcome to insight).
I just think in order for endemic media to be successful, and the outdoor industry to be successful, everyone needs skin in the game. From the brand side, the reaction to this situation can’t be “we’re gonna support endemic media because…loyalty” it needs to be “we’re gonna support endemic media because they provide a business growth opportunity we can’t get anywhere else.” And from the consumer/reader side, the reaction can’t be “I’m subscribing cause I like rallying behind slogans ‘print/endemic media is not dead'” but rather “I’m subscribing because this content, these people and the partnerships they develop with advertisers genuinely add value to my life.” And finally, from the media perspective, it can’t be “support us because it’s the right thing to do.” It needs to be “support us because we understand what our readers and advertisers need better than an algorithm ever could. Our goal is to enrich people’s lives.”
There are a lot of market forces that will continue to be at play, and we can’t be blind to those. But if we get there man…I like our chances.
And seriously…Follow thednvr.com if you want some ideas on the media model for the future. Mid-market sports is a surprisingly relevant comparison to the outdoor industry.